Drew Perkoski didn't celebrate his 14th birthday with the usual cake and candles. Instead, he was atop Mount Fuji, tired from his hike, hungry and wondering "How can I breathe better?" he said.
"Mount Fuji is, if anything, humbling," he said, recalling his July 23 climb to the summit. "You can see for miles and miles, lakes and towns, temples and shrines. It seems like the top of the world. The winds whip you and the water freezes you. There's no other way to describe it.
The hike up Japan's highest mountain was the highlight of the trip taken by 10 members Venture Scout Crew 3776 to Kawasaki, Baltimore's sister city July 18 to Aug. 4. Drew came home with a walking stick covered in stamps from each station up the 12,000-foot mountain. Special ones, in English and Japanese, mark sunrise on the mountain and just being there.
Drew explained that Fuji's walking path is quite gravelly. "You sligde down a foot with every step," he said. "The Fuji stick and a trekking pole are your best friends."
Drew, who is about to begin his freshman year at Parkville High School, is also a Life Scout — one step away from Eagle Scout — with Troop 475, which meets in Parkville. Drew's father, Steven Seward, of Towson, was a member the same troop and his grandfather, Mitt Seward, of Towson, served as an assistant scoutmaster.
The delegation included 10 members of the co-ed Venture crew. Baltimore Scouts have participated in similar summer exchanges with Kawasaki scouts since 1985, according to Dan Young, one of the crew's leaders. The visits began after Baltimore and Kawasaki became sister cities in 1979, he said. Scouts from Japan first came to Baltimore for a Scout jamboree. "It's been going consistently ever since," said Young, who noted that the SARS epidemic and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami prevented the scouts from making the trip. The Venture crew was formed in 2008 for the purpose of continuing the exchanges, Young said.
This year, the scouts and three adult leaders joined in sightseeing trips to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, a baseball game, shopping areas and even a ramen noodle museum. There was also a two-day camping trip with the Japanese scouts and the overnight hike up Mount Fuji — which began at about midnight so the scouts could be on the summit in time for sunrise.
Drew tasted octopus balls and Japanese McDonald's food, met with the mayor of Kawasaki, who is also a scout, and learned about Aido, the martial art of drawing a Samarai sword called a Katana, and took part in Kendo, which Drew called "the Japanese version of fencing."
Drew said he was grateful to his host family, which included an 11-year-old Webelo Scout, Shota Ushio. The family remembered his birthday with a party and fireworks just before the hike up Fuji.
He brought them souvenirs of Baltimore, including Orioles shirts and Old Bay spice. "They liked all the gifts," he said. "They were extremely grateful of everything."
Drew came home impressed by all he saw. "It's similar to American culture," he said, "but so different."
He noted how those he met were accepting of their differences. "They put their everything into what they do," Drew said, adding that even the counter staff at McDonald's showed pride in their work. "You really get a sense of how they value other people," he said.
In the months before their trip, the scouts prepared with monthly meetings and two retreats, one for team-building and another that included a hike the same distance as their Mount Fuji hike — without the altitude. "There's nowhere on this side of the country where you can try to deal with the altitude," Drew said.
The scouts prepared a "Sayonara Party" for their host families. They planned a "chuck wagon Western" theme with John Denver songs and square dancing. "It was good," Drew said. They even presented an American flag — which had flown over the U.S. Capitol — to the Japanese scout leader when they lowered the flags at the end of the party. "He was doing more than you ever knew," Drew said.